On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy set the stage for the passage of landmark civil rights legislation when he declared in a speech that he was seeking… « the kind of equal treatment we would want for ourselves. » And despite his tragic mission, this leadership set the wheels in motion for one of the most important pieces of legislation the U.S. government has ever passed to protect the civil rights of African-Americans. That legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This bill represented the culmination of a long struggle lasting decades, if not a century, to secure real civil rights for African-Americans in the United States. President Kennedy saw it as a chance to put teeth into the law to give it the power to really change the way the country worked, played and lived together. It was a powerful continuation of the work begun with the Civil Rights Act of 1875, but with much more enforceable force combined with language that made it contemporary to an era of expanding civil rights movement.

The bill broadly swept the scope of areas of civil life in this country that would be affected by restrictions against discrimination. Perhaps the bill’s five « titles » cover necessary social changes, including..

Title I – Prohibited discriminatory voter registration practices that have been used in attempts to deny blacks the right to vote.

Title II – Made it illegal to discriminate in public places such as restaurants, theaters or hotels on the basis of race.

Title III – Prohibited discrimination in public accommodations such as government services or schools.

Title IV – Enforced desegregation of public schools

Title V – Outlawed discrimination in the workplace, including race-based hiring practices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 touched virtually every aspect of public life in America, from schools to the workplace, even to public gatherings such as entertainment and dining establishments. In every way that Americans have come together as a people, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has prohibited discrimination against African-Americans in that setting.

But there are other important advances for civil rights that were an important part of the development of this bill. The bill wasn’t just about the civil rights of African-Americans and, in fact, it doesn’t address that population directly at all. Instead, the bill protects the civil rights of all minority groups. As such, it made the struggle for equality in which the African-American community had been involved since the Civil War everyone’s struggle for equality, and it made all Americans brothers in the quest for equal opportunity and treatment for all citizens of this great country.

By approaching the bill in this way, Congress forged powerful allies for the African-American cause and put legislation in place to begin to positively view the emerging women’s equal rights movement, which needed just as much correction and support to see that women’s rights also became the law of the land. Again, this built a strong alliance between these movements that added « power » not only to the bill to ensure it passed Congress, but it also gave « power » to those who were charged with enforcing this important legislation.

You have to admire the courage of this country’s leaders for taking a stand for equal rights by putting this bill into effect. We especially add our admiration to the work of President Kennedy and then President Johnson, who didn’t let Kennedy’s subpoena hurt the chances of this bill becoming law. For President Johnson, putting the muscle of the presidency behind this bill gave it the power to fend off objections and become the law of the land.

Many say that this single political stance he took destroyed Johnson’s chances of re-election because of the animosity it provoked in the South toward him. But President Johnson did what all presidents should do. He considered the good of the country and society more important than his own political ambitions, and he defied the danger of making equal rights for African Americans and all Americans the law. We need that kind of leadership today and in every generation of this nation’s leaders so that we always seek the common good in the laws we see passed by our government.

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